It’s easy to be alarmed by the Zika virus spreading across the Americas. It’s all over the news, some of the complications are severe, and we still don’t know a lot about it, even if the virus has been around for 70 years.
But, as President Obama said Monday, there is also good reason not to panic.
“This is not something where people are going to die from it,” he told “CBS This Morning.” But “it is something that we have to take seriously.”
Leading public health officials are echoing that message, even as they acknowledge that the virus is — as the president said — quite serious.
Let’s put the situation in context.
For most people, Zika is no big deal.
Four out of five people who contract Zika virus don’t develop symptoms at all. Those who do typically experience fatigue, aches, and a mild skin rash. Symptoms typically last several days to a week.
The exceptions to that rule are what make the virus alarming. It is suspected, though not yet proven, that when contracted by pregnant women, the virus can also infect the fetus. In those cases, babies can be born with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly. It’s not known how often this happens.
Zika virus is also believed to be linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can lead to temporary paralysis and, very rarely, death.
Still, for the vast majority of people, Zika is going to be a mild annoyance at worst.
The mosquitoes that transmit the virus aren’t rampant across the US.
The only mosquitoes known to transmit the virus are known as Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. They’re concentrated in the South and they’re not out in large numbers yet. Scientists say the United States is likely to see small clusters of Zika in places like Florida and Texas. The chances of clusters of Zika in Maine? Not very high.
As for the timing, mosquitoes generally start to emerge when the temperature consistently reaches 50 degrees Fahrenheit. For the southernmost parts of the United States, they are starting to experience those temperatures (the high is expected to be 73 degrees in Corpus Christi, Texas, Tuesday.)
But for the rest of the nation, it will be another month or two before that kind of warmth is seen regularly, and even then, Aedes mosquitoes don’t circulate there in large numbers.
It isn’t transmitted through casual contact.
This isn’t the flu. The primary means of Zika transmission is through mosquitoes. They become infected by taking a blood meal from an infected person, and then they pass the virus as they bite other people.
There have also been a couple of reported cases in which the virus was transmitted through sex, but experts believe that is likely a rare mode of transmission.
When it comes to mosquitoes, the United States is better equipped to ward off infections than some of our neighbors in South America. Air conditioning and window screens are common. So is contraception — which isn’t the case across all of Latin America.
High season for transmission is still to come.
Mosquitoes are going to come out in the United States as the temperatures get warmer. And the conditions that might allow for local spread will come into play in more areas.
We are in the midst of one of the most popular times for American tourists to visit Latin America and Caribbean countries. Peak season for Caribbean tourism typically lasts through May.
Two months later, Brazil, the epicenter of the epidemic, will host the Summer Olympics. Already, some experts are calling for the games to be postponed. Kenya has threatened to sit out the Olympics unless the virus is contained.